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The U.S. Tax System: Where do we go from here? Adele C. Morris, Ph.D. Fellow The Brookings Institution March 27, 2012.

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Presentation on theme: "The U.S. Tax System: Where do we go from here? Adele C. Morris, Ph.D. Fellow The Brookings Institution March 27, 2012."— Presentation transcript:

1 The U.S. Tax System: Where do we go from here? Adele C. Morris, Ph.D. Fellow The Brookings Institution March 27, 2012

2 1 Sources and Further Reading: Congressional Budget Office » Urban – Brookings Tax Policy Center » Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget » Tracy Gordon, The Brookings Institution

3 2 Outline Basics of the U.S. fiscal system What problems are we trying to solve with tax reform? Proposals

4 3 What Are Taxes? Involuntary payments to support collective provision of certain goods and services Not a payment for services rendered Focus in this talk: U.S. federal taxes »Personal income taxes »Payroll taxes »Corporate income taxes »Estate taxes

5 4 Where is here? Fiscal facts »Spending »Revenues »Deficits »Debt Historic data and projections

6 5 The U.S. Federal Budget 1971-2011 Source: CBO % of GDP

7 Source: CBO

8 Source: CBO

9 8 What should a tax reform reform? How much revenue should the tax system raise? Is the tax system fair? Does it influence behavior in ways that hurt the economy or raise the cost of collecting revenue? Is the tax system too complicated?

10 9 Do we need more revenue? Debates about tax levels are often proxy fights about the appropriate size and scope of government.

11 10

12 11

13 12 CBO Alternative Fiscal Scenario Arguably more probable than current law »Current tax cuts extended »Alternative minimum tax inflation-adjusted »Medicare payments to doctors held constant »No Budget Control Act automatic cuts

14 13 Why care about high federal debt? Borrowing costs for everyone go up and makes the problem worse U.S. beholden to foreign buyers of U.S. debt People buy Treasury bonds instead of making other productive investments Reduces the option to spend more later



17 16

18 17 Is the tax system fair? Concepts of tax equity Equity across income classes Tax burdens over time

19 18 Concepts of Equity Horizontal Vertical Effective tax rate (ETR) = taxes paid as % of income How does this vary with income? »Progressivity: »Proportionality: = »Regressivity:

20 19 Graduated Rate Structure Marginal income tax rates in 2007 for two types of filers:

21 Source: Daniel Indiviglio, The Atlantic, Sept 22, 2011 Above $1M Tax Paid/Adjusted Gross Income

22 21

23 22 How Do Federal Taxes Compare?


25 24 But Who Pays, Really? Who pays »Payroll tax? »Sales tax? »Corporate income tax? Statutory and economic incidence are NOT the same thing Can shift taxes forward (to buyers) or backward (to suppliers) Affects distribution of tax burdens

26 25 What Determines Tax Incidence? Depends on elasticities = % change in quantity supplied or demanded relative to % change in price »Taxes are a hot potato »Parties with inelastic supply or demand bear taxes »Parties with elastic supply or demand avoid taxes Corporations aren’t people in the tax world

27 26 Example: Who Bears a $0.50 Gas Tax on Sellers?

28 27 What If $0.50 Gas Tax on Buyers? Same thing! Depends only on elasticities

29 28 Does the tax system create inefficient incentives? Taxes can change behavior in many ways: »Labor vs. leisure »Business organization »Business location »Consumption choices (health insurance, home purchase) »Investment and savings Why do we care? »Behavioral responses can reduce revenue and promote inefficient consumption patterns


31 30 Taxes and Labor Supply Relationship between tax revenue and tax rates is not linear At the extreme, it may be negative (Laffer curve)

32 31 Corporate Income Tax Issues “Double taxation” of dividends Capital depreciation Defining the base »Transfer pricing »Advance pricing agreements »Income apportionment

33 32 Reducing the cost of raising revenue Size of dead weight loss depends on: »Tax rate »Size of market »Elasticities or sensitivity of demand and supply to prices We want to: »Use broad-based taxes with low rates »Limit tax expenditures »Tax those who are least responsive



36 35 So what do we do? Simpson-Bowles »Bipartisan tax commission appointed by President Obama »Failed super-majority vote and didn’t win White House support Rivlin-Domenici »Bipartisan Policy Center project Republican candidates

37 36 Source: Ezra Klein, Washington Post

38 37 Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, Washington Post, 1/5/12


40 39

41 40 Add a new revenue instrument? Value Added Tax (VAT) »Recommended by Rivlin-Domenici »Collected at intermediate stages of production »Every firm gets to claim refund for taxes paid on purchases »Final burden borne by consumer Carbon tax

42 41 Conclusion Current fiscal path poses damaging levels of federal debt “No new taxes” equals “Yes new deficits” without massive spending reductions Tax composition and levels matter Broader base, lower rates are more economically efficient Good luck

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